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Mitsotakis lightning Bulgaria visit has regional focus

Although there are no urgent bilateral issues, the Greek Prime Minister was the first European leader to visit Bulgaria under the new government
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LNG terminal in Alexandroupolis

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Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Sofia December 20, opening contacts with the new Bulgarian government through meetings with newly elected Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov (sworn in only on December 13) and President Rumen Radev. Although it is not unusual for prime ministers of neighboring countries to organize rushed meetings, the lack of urgent bilateral issues raised eyebrows, since neither country would normally give such priority to making first contact with each other. Both PMs have attended Harvard, although at separate times, leaving some observers to joke about a secret Harvard alumni gathering in Sofia. Other analysts think discussions about regional issues were sufficiently urgent to justify this quick pre-Christmas meeting.

Energy

The most important bilateral issue concerns energy and that has an important regional dimension as well. Both leaders reportedly agreed to accelerate ongoing work on the Bulgaria-Greece Interconnector (IGB) which will connect Bulgaria’s gas network to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in northern Greece enabling it to utilize natural gas from Azerbaijan, helping to break Russia’s current monopoly on gas supplies to Bulgaria. The leaders are said to have agreed to complete the project within several months, and energy discussions are also said to have focused on how the Alexandroupolis LNG terminal, coupled with the completed IGB, will give Bulgaria extra flexibility in importing LNG from third countries, further weakening the Russian monopoly.

Turkey

It is unclear why the leaders felt the need to squeeze a press conference into their program for this first trip, but that opened the way for Mitsotakis to push hard against Turkey in the presence of his Bulgarian counterpart. He said Turkey needed to end its “provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean….if it wants to normalize bilateral ties and relations with the European Union.” Having Petkov stand by that statement only reinforced the impact on Ankara, but it is unclear whether it actually registered on anybody that mattered.

Enlargement

After December’s Euro Summit failed to register any kind of progress on EU Enlargement, there is hope that things will begin to change as France takes over the EU presidency on January 1. PM Petkov has already said he wants to wrap up bilateral negotiations with North Macedonia over the longstanding language and cultural disputes in six months.
The combination of Petkov’s practical approach and signals of French interest in taking charge of, and credit for, the Enlargement process in the western Balkans has generated some hope that a path forward will be found during the French presidency in time for a major summit on Enlargement that Macron is said to be planning. In view of this, it is not impossible that Mitsotakis was carrying a message to Petkov from his close ally Macron regarding the need to resolve the dispute with North Macedonia soon, which may actually be easier now that Zoran Zaev has completed his dragged-out resignation process in Skopje. The official Greek statements in Sofia were not particularly different from what has been said before, e.g., that Greece favors a formal start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible, subject to those candidates continuing to meet membership criteria.

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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